As a child, I never got tired of my grandmother’s company.
And like any loving grandmother, she narrated stories to keep me entertained. She told stories of local heroes like Kayankulam Kochunni, or funny stories of Tenali Raman. Moreover, from time to time, my grandmother would switch genre to horror and narrate stories of Kathanaar and Neeli.
Like many of us, grandma’s ghost stories were probably the first brush with supernatural/horror. I’m thankful for a childhood filled with stories, and I’m positive that it influenced the person I am today.
I remember stories about white saree clad Yakshis that waited to ambush weary travellers. The way the story was told, the Yakshi had an almost femme fatale vibe in Indian folklore. My grandmother relished setting the scene: a moonlit blue, dark forest. At the stroke of midnight, a beautiful long-haired woman in white lurks under an Ezhilampala devil tree, her long sari pallu flying in the air. Silhouetted Palmyra palm trees sway and whistle in the breeze. Expectations of the woman morphing into a blood-sucking fiend, pouncing on unsuspecting victims give you the chills, freezes you.
Men from families disappearing in this manner would soon become a pressing matter and exorcisms would get conducted to compel them to find peace. And to perform the exorcism, they would employ a potentially dangerous Manthravadi with a legendary reputation. He practices the engagement with religious rituals and finally nails the Yakshi back to the tree.
Now, I’m not trying to say that my grandma came up with the classic ‘Malayalam Horror’ movie format. She probably heard these stories elsewhere, and after all, the first set of Malayalam horror movies were based on legends such as these.
From the first horror movie in Malayalam, Bhargavi Nilayam, to recent ones like Ezra or Pretham; It’s been a slow journey. For all the progress we made in different genres over the years, horror is a genre that Malayalam filmmakers seem to be stumbling at, and the audience seems disinterested.
I know what this sounds like: I’m going to talk about how modern horror sucks and how they will never match up to the older classics. But that’s only half true. Half of all the horror films that came out in the last couple of decades have been pretty amazing. And when I say half, I mean literally half of a movie!
What happened? While Hindi and Tamil moviemakers successfully toyed with various sub-genres of horror, the Malayalam movie industry mostly shied away after a few popular films like Bhargavi Nilayam (1964), Yakshi (1968) and Lisa (1978). Many times I find myself wondering what made us stray away from movies like these. Like Bhargavi Nilayam, which excelled at building the horror atmosphere or Lisa, which, single-handedly turned the black cat into a horror movie mascot.
We still make horror movies, though gone are the days of the spirit of white saree clad Yakshis getting nailed to a tree. Instead, now we have a mix of Jewish ghosts stuck in Dybbuk box and tech-savvy ghosts stuck on the internet (Pretham 2, I’m looking at you!). I remember something Prithviraj kept repeating during the promotions for Ezra (Not the blatant promotional gimmick that he watched it a 100 times and he’s still getting chills); that Ezra is one of the purest horror movies in Malayalam in a long time. I pondered about the way he framed it. What did he mean, “purest horror movie”? I mean, I grew up at the genre’s peak, between 2000-2010. And in this period, horror seemed like it was here to stay, creating waves in big and small screens alike. Horror movies were made, sometimes without even a known cast (mostly because they could spend the money saved on CGI). On the small screen, we watched Yakshis and Kathanaar battling it out in prime time as we had our dinner. But the trend was short-lived. Horror as a genre seemed to have the same fate as the Yakshi who would be banished back to whatever hole she crawled out of.
At a time when Hollywood and Bollywood seem to be releasing more horror movies than ever (although in Bollywood the trend seemed to have died down a bit), Malayalam filmmakers seem hesitant. Even after the new wave of Malayalam cinema, the horror genre largely remains untapped. And at this age, when Conjuring and Annabelle movies seem to have found a market in our Kerala, why aren’t we making more horror movies?
This was when the statement made by Prithviraj made more sense to me. We, as Malayalis, have been conditioned to a certain type of horror movie. I tried to remember as many successful Malayalam horror movies as I could, and even when they seem to get the horror and the atmosphere and in some cases, phenomenal music right, all these movies seemed to be some kind of mutant hybrid between comedy and horror.
Need examples? Glad you asked.
Aakashaganga was Vinayan’s departure from the kind of mellow, funny family movies he usually makes. It was truly a game-changer and started what I’d like to call the second coming of horror in Malayalam. He cast a literal unknown as the lead actor, and much of the movie rested on Vinayan’s skill as a director, the actresses, and the supporting funny men to deliver. Even though I remember enjoying a lot of it as a kid, looking back, I feel Vinayan seemed restrained. He prefixed every horror scene with comedy as if to make sure the experience didn’t traumatise children. Even when he came back with Vellinakshathram (which was also a hit, by the way), he seems to have elaborated the story, but again kept a mix of humour strewn throughout that stuck out like a sore thumb. I’m not even going to mention his Dracula movie and Yakshiyum Njanum, because that could be a completely different post.
When the shift in genre seemed to work for Vinayan, Sibi Malayil also tried his hand at horror. Devadhoothan was a fantastic movie accompanied by rousing musical score and songs and not to mention, phenomenal performances from everyone involved. But again, why they incorporated humour into this movie is beyond me. Most of the comedy scenes felt like they were lifted from some stage skit and what a shift in tone that was!
Devadhoothan, compared to other films of the genre, seems to have aged well. Mostly because of Reghunath Paleri’s brilliant writing. I cannot say the same for the comedy scenes strewn throughout the movie. But I was shocked to know that this movie did not do well in the box office.
Conversely, a movie such as Mayilpeelikkavu was a success. Again, it’s a movie that had a decent plot that provided the makers Anil-Babu ample scope to create an atmosphere of eeriness and fear, and they seem to have utilised those moments well. But the half baked romantic subplot and the humour seemed like a bad fit for the movie.
Megasandhesham, the Suresh Gopi starrer is one of the few horror movies in which you’d see the Yakshi gorging on idli and sambar. And no, this was not a spoof. The idli-sambar-chutney scene was there by design. Megasandhesam was Rajasenan’s contribution to the horror movie trend in Malayalam. And thankfully, it was just the one time.
None of these movies is a true game-changer. 99% of horror movies in Malayalam are a rehash of older Malayalam horror movies or immature avatars of decades-old Hollywood movies (including Mayilpeelikavu which is a remake of the English film, Dead Again). Even though some these managed to find box office success, none of them managed to thrill mature moviegoers. And most of them feature the same elements – shaky cam, owls and howls, humans morphing into animals, loud sounds, a little fire here and there, lamps falling down, candle flames going out, and a windy ambience, all put into a blender and churned out. And when things get a little too scary for the kids, they immediately switch to a comedy skit. An astute film observer might even invent a bingo card or start a drinking game to make things more exciting while viewing such movies.
These depictions have become very predictable and almost unwatchable these days.
This trend can be traced back to one movie in particular – Director Fazil’s bold experiment in 1993 to fuse parapsychology and tantric treatment – Manichitrathazhu. The film is based on a tragedy that happened in Alummoottil Tharavadu, a famous central Travancore family, in the 19th century. The movie showed an unusual theme that was not common in Indian cinema. Manichitrathazhu is considered to be one of the best Indian thrillers and one of the best Malayalam films ever made. It has been remade in various languages, including Kannada (Apthamitra), Tamil and Telugu (dubbed) (Chandramukhi), Bengali (Rajmohol), and Hindi (Bhool Bhulaiyaa).
Though much of the credit still goes to Fazil, contributions from the actors, writer Madhu Muttom and second unit directors for the movie such as Priyadarshan, Sibi Malayil, and Siddique-Lal ought not to be forgotten.
Even to this day, Manichithrathazhu is an unusual watch, weaving spine-chilling moments of terror with scenes of comedy and drama. The movie, regularly telecast on different Malayalam channels, still holds up after repeated viewings.
Fazil and Madhu Muttom wanted their script to have everything, from the arts – painting, music and dance – to drama, suspense and comedy. Many people discouraged them, saying that it was a very serious subject. They were dealing with multiple personality disorder, with a protagonist who was in a possessed state. But they had immense confidence in the subject. They wanted to talk about mental illness. That was their ultimate goal. They felt it was something that people across the country would identify with.
But there was a very particular way they induced comedy in the movie. The humour in Manichithrathaazhu was organic and situational. And most of the time, it served a purpose. Comedy served as set ups. Set ups to introduce characters, to introduce plotlines, to reveal the facets and personalities of characters. For example, the very first time we’re treated for laughs in the movie was at Innocent’s character’s realisation that he was all alone in the palace. This leads to his iconic “Rajappo? Raaghavo?” and he makes a dash for it. Innocent’s expressions at the situation are what sells the humour. From then on, each comedy beat introduces characters: KPAC Lalitha as the wife, Pappu as the Tantri, Nedumedi Venu as the family patriarch. Even the introduction scene for Mohanlal was prefixed with similar situational comedy.
Comparing something like this to a scene, for example, in Vellinakshathram, where relatives take the “possessed” child to join a kindergarten, where she animates cartoon animals to life and then proceeds to sing and dance with the animals and other children is not entertaining to anyone over the age of 8.
So, when Ezra rolled around, I thought the days of horror movies unwisely rocking back and forth between tones was behind us. But what followed was the regular ghost story with a Teal, Jewish filter applied with Prithviraj’s trademark, self-involved twist. And then Jayasurya’s Pretham came out, which followed the exact same story beats of Manichithrathaazhu but with a Mentalist treatment instead of the parapsychology angle.
Horror isn’t just about getting scared by creepy faces jumping out at you and monsters, demons, and ghosts haunting people. As displayed by classic Hollywood horror films such as Psycho (1960), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Suspiria (1977), and even The Blair Witch Project (1999), or recent ones like Hereditary (2018), Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), the horror genre shines when not only is an audience scared, but when the creepy atmosphere and the chills created by the movie lasts long after the credits.
That’s why so many of these are hailed as classics because even decades later they can freak an audience out and poke at common fears. In that way, I feel many new wave directors are really close to giving us that atmospheric treatment. Here are three new age directors from whom I’d like to see a horror movie.
- Aashiq Abu: Though his segment “Gauri” in 5 Sundarikal wasn’t the best of the lot, the tinge of horror treatment he gave towards the end of it gave me the chills, to be honest. His latest, Virus, follows the horror movie story beat, where the Nipah Virus is treated as the ‘big bad’. His execution along with Sushin’s music was fear-inducing; exactly the kind of vibe you want to get out of a horror movie.
- Jenuse Mohammed: His movie 9, really toyed with the idea of horror and his execution-style was very effective in setting that mood. Something about the way his movies are lit gives me the creeps. Even his breezy, romantic debut 100 days of Love could easily be re-edited to make it look like a horror movie.
- Lijo Jose Pellissery: Of course this is a man who jumbles through various genres and very rarely does it feel like he missed his mark. The movie I felt was the closest to the genre was his debut movie Nayakan. The lighting, the angles and particularly the use of colours really got me going there. The characterisation of Siddique’s JS had elements of goth and horror. Maybe one day we’ll get to see him explore the horror root and redefine the genre for Malayali movie audience.
Of course, I know I still have a lot of research (i.e. watching movies) to do on this subject, and I do expect to update this at some point in the future. Most of these films that I’ve discussed are just the major horror releases that I grew up watching. There are a number of lesser known horror films and subgenres in Malayalam that I still have to dive into. Maybe another day.
The issues that I’ve discussed here highlight problems in the fundamental storytelling technique these makers seem to have employed in their horror movies. I do believe that most horror movies are hard to pull off even when they have an excellent concept. And I understand why makers feel the need to insert half-baked comedy scenes into the mix. These are generally expensive movies, and studios/producers won’t invest in them unless they believe they’ll draw a crowd. Every movie, horror or otherwise, could be better. I’d just like to see the horror genre in Malayalam take more strides to be a place for quality stories as well as scare-fests.
Give us nightmares again, please?